Woman's ordeal illustrates need for health care reform

February 13, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SIX WEEKS after darkness descended, Patti Owens rose from her bed and gazed into the Kernan Hospital bathroom mirror, only dimly aware of her post-surgical Mohawk haircut and the teeth all gone from her mouth. She thought, for the first time, that something looked different about the right side of her face, which had been crushed.

"Eddie," she called into the next room to her husband, "did something happen to my eye?"

Gently as he could, Eddie told her, "Honey, you don't have an eye."

She looked into the mirror again, trying to understand the thing that Eddie was saying, and trying to absorb what her remaining vision was unable to translate to her brain.

"Where's my eye?" she said.

"You lost it."

"Where did I lose it?"

"In the accident," her husband explained once again.

She remembered none of it: not the accident six weeks earlier on Anne Arundel County's Muddy Creek Road as she drove home from her job at the Severna Park Giant Food. Not the pastor and the paramedic who found her lying there after her car careened through a wooden fence in Shady Side, skidded across a pasture and slammed into a big oak tree. And not the operations or the three weeks in a coma that followed.

The memory loss was lucky, but what followed is not. Owens, 47, has undergone 12 facial reconstruction surgeries. She lost all of her teeth (but, eight months after the accident, hopes to get them replaced next week). She spent four weeks in a brain injury hospital unit and six more at a rehabilitation center. She awaits still more surgery on her eye and cheek.

"I'm blessed to be alive," she was saying this week, sitting in her Cedarhurst living room with her dog, Thuse, nearby and a patch over her eyelid. "I don't remember any of it. I don't know why I left the road. There was no turn there. I don't know why I lost control. I don't recall if I blacked out. They did all kinds of brain scans, and they didn't find anything that looked like neurological trouble."

A deeply religious woman before the accident, and a congregant at the Chesapeake Christian Fellowship in Davidsonville, she has recorded songs for her church and says the accident has deepened her convictions.

"I keep telling myself, `God kept me alive for a reason. I'm here for a reason,'" she said. "I will be open to God's will. If I live by his standard, my purpose will be revealed to me."

"I've seen wonderful growth in Patti since the accident," says Chesapeake Christian Pastor Chuck Sheetenhelm. "God grows beautiful through turmoil. It's a lot of pain to endure. But she said to me, `God has used this to get my attention.'"

"She's changed since the accident," adds her friend Debbie Gaffier. "She's always been sweet and outgoing, but she's stronger emotionally now, I think. She's amazing. She's trusting and open, like a child hoping to be accepted. And, of course, she's always loving the Lord."

Faith is a beautiful and sustaining thing for those who have it. But life also exacts tangible costs. In America, the great presidential contenders describe the calamity of health care cost but invariably reduce it to bloodless numbers. Patti Owens is the face of the nation's need for health care reform.

"We've managed to this point," she was saying now. "Through my work, I have a lifetime maximum I can reach, but I'm reaching it pretty rapidly. We maxed out on my rehabilitation costs. I've still got surgery ahead of me. I was in neurological rehab for weeks. I'd lost my sense of cognitive thinking. I needed speech therapy."

A week ago, members of her congregation lent a huge helping hand, staging a fund-raising concert at the church. About 400 people attended, and they raised $27,000 to help pay Owens' massive medical bills.

"Oh, it just lifted my spirits so much," Owens said, smiling wide. "It made me realize I can't give up. I had started to feel a bit down, you know, a bit isolated. I don't want to say I was feeling sorry for myself, but maybe I was. But then, to have so many people come through for me ... ."

"This is a remarkable church," Pastor Sheetenhelm said. "Just give them the opportunity, and they reach out with love. Patti's been part of us for 10 years. She's a wonderful singer and a deeply loved person. And the people in this church really posted for her, big time. As a body, we hurt for her. But we rejoice in her recovery."

The operations will continue, and so will the costs. Contributions continue to come in for Owens.

"Lying in the bed at Kernan Hospital," Owens said now, "I thought, `Why me? Why did this happen to me?' One of the nurses came in, and we talked about it. She said, `Patti, you have to look around you. See the people in those wards?' They couldn't speak, they were paralyzed, they had neurological damage. I started to realize, God didn't do anything to me. He pulled me through."

Faith is a lovely thing. Also, it helps to have loving, generous friends. And a sane national health care policy would help even more.

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